21 February 2007


Ash Wednesday: Joel 2.12-18; 2 Cor 5.20-6.2; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX


What does the Lord want from us? He wants now what He has always wanted: the sacrifice of our contrite hearts. Keep the burnt offerings, the bulls and rams, the incense and flowers. He wants your heart, split open, artfully arranged, freshly washed and anointed; your heart repentant, rueful, intensely sorry, and wounded by love. He wants your clean heart and mind placed on the altar, freely given, offered up in praise, turned forever to His will for you. God wants your fasting, your weeping, your mourning; He also wants your feasting, your laughter, your joy. He wants a heart rent top to bottom in true sorrow for your sins, so rend your garments if you must, but know that torn garments, smudgy foreheads, and dour faces, though signs of a proper contrition, are not contrition in themselves. It is better to be truly contrite and happy about it than to be faking contrition and hiding behind public displays of piety!

Playing at religion is a very dangerous thing, brothers and sisters. God wants our hearts and minds; He wants us to return to Him whole and entire. Do you think He can’t see through the layers of religiousy junk we sometimes slathered over our miserly souls? Do you think He can’t smell the failure of our public piety, or the rank odor of desperation in that good work we did to curry favor before Lent? Jesus himself could not be clearer than he is this morning: give alms in secret so that only the Father knows you give; pray in secret so that the Father may properly repay your trust; fast privately without being gloomy, without neglecting your appearance; anoint your head and WASH YOUR FACE! Do you think the Lord is going to smile on your grand sacrifice of walking around with ashes smudged on your forehead today? Tell me what a great witness that is and I’ll tell you to do it everyday!

Here’s your proper public Catholic witness on Ash Wednesday: first, wash your face in all humility and resist the Devil’s temptation to strut around as a “Proud Catholic.” Then look to the Lord in the desert. He goes out from the crowds. Away and into the desert. He withdraws to be with His Father. And finds himself confronted by the Devil and his lies. With what would you confront the Devil in the desert? How would you repel his seductions and deflect his temptations? Jesus is God. You aren’t. Would you fight Satan with false piety? Theatrical religiosity? Would you ward him off with some sort of amulet or spell? Let me suggest that there is no fight with the Devil when one’s heart is truly contrite, filled with grace, given over wholly to the Father as a sacrifice of praise, and lifted up on the altar.

Why am I being so hard on the public witness of piety? I know from personal experience the seduction of believing that I am accomplishing something good for God by playing at being religious. Jesus is also worried about us and how easy it is for us to confuse show and substance. This is an acceptable time for us to be truly reconciled with God, but that reconciliation is done through a heart and soul converted to God’s law of love not a smudge of ashes or a much-discussed fast or a grand gesture of almsgiving. If your day to day life at work or school or the office fails to give a faithful witness to God, then a dot of dust or an unusual bag of carrot sticks for lunch won’t change minds. In fact, more than anything, without a daily witness of true service that dot of dust says, “I’ve decided to trot out my religion today for your consumption. Isn’t it cool?”

Yea. That’s what Jesus died for. Cool. Fortunately, we have forty days to figure this out. Forty days to live intensely in the presence of the Lord. Forty days to sit at his feet and learn humility. Forty days to learn to be happy and purged, joyful and emptied. Forty days to cleave our contrite hearts, stoke the fires of sacrifice and offer our very selves to him. So, wash your face and clean your heart.


  1. Anonymous6:26 AM

    I am in complete agreement that Catholics should not flaunt religious piety. But Ash Wedneday is really the only day of the year where Christians take the risk of coming out of the woodwork and showing the world, even a bit reluctantly, that "this is the Christ that I believe in." And He wasn't afraid to wear the sin of mankind upon the cross for all to see, so I'm not afraid for just one day to bear His cross on my forehead.
    One day.
    That's not an extravagant display of piety. You have to wear evidence of your Christian vocation every day. Please don't encourage us to withdraw from one of our only opportunities to publicly (and lovingly) express our Christian vocation as well.
    just a thought...
    have a most blessed Lent!

  2. Anonymous12:41 PM

    Father, do you go out in public in your clerics? Should Consecrated Religious (Sisters and Brothers) wear habits in public? According to your post, the answer is a resounding NO!

    It is true that outward expressions CAN be "theatrical religiosity" ... but is ALWAYS? Can't the exterior be a sign of the interior?

    I have ALWAYS worn my ashes, and am ever amazed at the number of people who approach me and say, "I had forgotten today is Ash Wednesday. Thank you. I'll remember to find a mass tonight." Also, the people who tell me I have a smudge on my forehead get a simple explanation, and a wee bit of evangelization takes place.

    I have to disagree, Father. I will continue to leave my ashes, and pray the interior humility and conversion is taking place.

  3. SMK,

    This is an old, old argument...

    I do wear my habit to work everyday. I don't wear it out shopping or going to the movie. But we're comparing apples and oranges here. Jesus is teaching us something very specific to fasting, prayer, and almsgiving--all characteristics of our traditional Lenten practice. The worry is that we will come to see these three as the sum-total of Lent rather than signs of a contrite heart sacrificed during Lent. Is it possible that someone truly contrite might be compelled by humility to wear their ashes all day? Yes. However, Jesus says that in all humility you must not fast as the hypocrites do, so: wash your face! The idea being that even a truly contrite person can be seen by others as a hypocrite if the witness of his other brothers and sisters is hypocritical. It's just safer for the witness to fast, pray, and give alms in private where the Father alone sees and rewards.

    If we're not to take Jesus' admonition seriously here, why did the church give us this reading for today? There are literally more than hundred passages on fasting they could have chosen, but the church gives us this gospel on Ash Wednesday. Is the church asking us to disobey the plain words of Christ?

    Fr. Philip, OP

  4. Anonymous9:26 AM

    Thank you Father for this posting. Matthew 6:16 speaks well on this matter.

  5. Anil Wang6:58 PM

    Father, Matthew 6:16 is most definitely appropriate for fasting in the right spirit, but keeping your ashes is no big sacrifice or a big display of piety.

    It is a far bigger display of piety and sacrifice to eat fish on Fridays, even in group celebrations.

    The modern Catholic has little fear of the temptation of showing off their faith. The modern Catholic is far more prone to hiding their faith since "you just don't talk about religion in the public space". Please do not frown on Catholics who have built up the courage to display their faith *at least once a year*.

  6. Anonymous10:17 PM

    I also will wear the ashes. It's a statement that I'm a Catholic and can invite discussion. I trust God will take care of this - if He doesn't think it's appropriate, He is completely capable of keeping others from seeing my ashes.

  7. Anonymous11:09 PM

    Oh father -

    Your words are so true but am in a spiritual desert right now and if i do not continue to do these " public " displays of piety - i may lose my faith altogether

    WHy am i in a desert ? I prayed , fasted and cried to the Lord for something and still did not get it and while i have tried to accept it - my prayers have been dry ever since

  8. Anonymous9:39 AM

    Living in the heavily Protestant South I get "you have a smudge on your head" comments - some not even knowing what Ash Wednesday is - more than anything. Quite frankly, after explaining what they are and why - they never care much and are more apt to quote Mt 6:16 than be evangelized. So I lean towards washing them off and evangelizing everyday in anyway possible.

  9. Anonymous1:45 PM

    Father, We wear ashes as a sign of our repentance and turning away from sin - like the people of Nineva. It is not that we are saying "I'm so holy, I went to Mass!" We are saying "I am a sinner and today begins a joyful season of repentance."